In the early 1980s we used to spend Christmas with the chef Raymond Blanc and his family. I was newly married, and Raymond and his first wife Jenny had just acquired the Oxfordshire pile that became Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons. It wasn’t as swanky as it is today—more of a restaurant with rooms—and Christmas dinner was traditional English fare with not even a French twist. I first got to know Raymond when the original Quat’Saisons was in an unprepossessing row of shops in the Oxford suburb of Summertown. From being regulars, we became friends, and when Raymond began writing his first cookery book he asked me to be one of his recipe testers.
A4 sheets would arrive by post and the hunt for rarefied ingredients would begin. This was London in 1986, when finding fresh herbs meant a trip to a Soho greengrocer (they were seasonal, and I’d be told in winter that chives or chervil “ain’t abaht yet”). I failed to find acacia honey in four specialist stores. If the shopping took days, so did the preparation. I vowed I’d never again attempt a red mullet dish, which required a panic call to Raymond when the pistou stuffing of provençal vegetables turned out like undercooked ratatouille (he told me to feed it through a liquidiser). But I amazed myself with the result. It was one of the most memorable things I’ve ever eaten, the flavours exquisitely layered—as they were in an equally challenging recipe of flash-fried oysters served with diced mango and a curry sabayon. I remember rolling my eyes at seeing seaweed on the list of ingredients, and again at having to blanch it and plunge it into iced water. Then the whole dish had to be placed under a grill at the last minute, but the freshness of colour this produced, along with the heady tang of ozone released by the heat, was a typically light and inventive touch.
The book, “Recipes from Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons”, was published in 1988, and the pristine condition of my copy today gives away the fact that it’s hardly been used since. But this Christmas—mostly out a sense of obligation to my son Joe, who’s a chef—I thought I’d retry a couple of the original recipes.
Our tradition is to have turkey and the works for dinner on Christmas Day, so I wanted a light fishy lunch. There are plenty of good food shops near where we live in Powys, but the live lobsters, turbot and caviar required by many of the book’s recipes are difficult to get. So I went for a recipe that I found among my original testing notes, spattered like a Jackson Pollock: “Tartare d’Aiglefin à l’Emince d’Avocat”. Mixing diced, raw and smoked haddock with tiny bits of cucumber, potato and red pepper seemed incredibly simple, but proved so time-consuming that I called on Joe’s help. He skinned and boned the fillets in seconds and did that flash professional thing of chopping so fast that his hand blurred. We squashed the mixture into a mould, forming little rondavels encircled with slivers of avocado, and topped it with diced tomato flesh and a feather of dill. “Very Eighties”, said Joe. But the family's verdict was unanimously enthusiastic.
Next was “Parfait de foie de Volailles”—chicken liver pâté—which was a bit of a cheat as it’s easy enough to be included in Raymond’s “Foolproof French Cookery”. I was proud to have caught a massive error while testing this recipe almost 30 years ago (half a teaspoon of salt listed among the ingredients had become one and a half tablespoons in the cooking instructions), but the parfait, “ribboned with baby vegetables pickled in honey vinegar”, had required the acacia blend that had been impossible to get. This time would be different, I thought: I’d spotted acacia honey at my local Sainsbury's, and fresh chicken livers in their meat section. But after finding the shelf bare on four consecutive trips, having to substitute rapeseed for grapeseed oil, and driving 40 minutes in search of dry Madeira, I had a strong sense of déjà vu. The result, though, was as wickedly rich as I remember—poor man's foie gras—but undercut by the delicate, sour-sweet pickled veg. We're making it last as we’re snowbound here and the fridge is almost empty. It could be our last festive sustenance until the thaw sets in. As I write, my sons are raiding the cupboards to make a dish that’s neither festive nor in Raymond’s book: tuna bake.